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The Times

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Doing less in the Middle East

  • Written by Jared Mondschein, Director of Research, US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

Prior to the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan posited[1] that the Middle East had been “quieter than it has been for decades”.

This is obviously no longer the case. On the contrary, the heart-wrenching state of the region has inflamed tensions and inspired generation-defining protests across the world.

This unrest has led many to wonder if the Biden administration’s Middle East policies will ultimately undermine[2] the president’s re-election campaign against former president Donald Trump in November.

It ultimately may. But even if the occupant of the White House changes, US policy toward the region largely will not. This is because Biden and Trump will both do everything possible to attain what Sullivan had hoped for: an ultimately quieter Middle East.

Bipartisan support for coalition-building

No single US initiative will be more crucial to securing a quieter Middle East than the boosting of ties between regional partners. The groundwork has already been laid through the Abraham Accords[3], the Arab-Israeli normalisation agreements initiated by the Trump administration and embraced by the Biden administration.

The fruits of such efforts became apparent when a diverse coalition – featuring the US, France, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel — worked together to down 300 Iranian projectiles launched at Israel on April 13. It was the first direct attack by Tehran against Israel in their decades-long shadow war.

The coalition’s joint response marked dramatic progress towards a long-term and bipartisan US goal for the Middle East: a level of regional co-operation and stabilisation that will finally allow for a decreased US footprint.

As much as Trump may not have appreciated[4] certain US alliances as much as his predecessors, it is safe to assume that whoever occupies the White House next year will likely seek to build on these regional alliances. There are a number of reasons for this.

Missiles in a parade in Tehran.
Missiles are carried on trucks during an Army Day parade at a military base in northern Tehran in April. Vahid Salemi/AP

Iran’s actions remain unchanged

First, the scope and severity of Iran’s destabilising conduct in the region has only increased.

Iranian proxy militant groups across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza have displayed unprecedented levels of aggression in recent years. It’s debatable[5] whether Iran was fully aware of Hamas’ attack on October 7, but Tehran undeniably continues to financially support the group.

Iran has been no less aggressive in its own conduct. In addition to its unprecedented attack on Israel in April, this has included:

Israeli-Arab ties persist

Second, Iran’s conduct has undoubtedly contributed to stronger ties[6] between Israel and the Arab world. Such ties have persisted – albeit more quietly[7] since the start of the war in Gaza.

Jordan’s King Hussein, who rules over a mostly Palestinian population, may be a vociferous critic of Israel’s conduct in Gaza, but he nonetheless benefits[8] from record levels of Israeli gas and desalinised water going to his energy-poor and water-scarce country.

The Egyptian economy is so reliant on Israeli energy[9] that Egyptians endured rolling blackouts[10] when Israel briefly cut gas exports at the start of the war.

The UAE and Israel have only deepened their commercial, political and military links after their new Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement[11] went into effect last year.

While the UAE has repeatedly condemned Israel for its actions in Gaza, bilateral trade actually increased[12] by 7% in the first quarter of 2024.

Both Trump and Biden want out of the Middle East

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, both Republicans and Democrats agree on the need to shift US attention and resources to the Indo-Pacific region. This is not lost on US partners in the Middle East.

This is why the Biden administration both endorsed and continued two of the Trump administration’s top diplomatic initiatives in the region — the Abraham Accords and the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The reason is the longstanding, bipartisan sentiment that the US should not expend further resources — or, even worse, lose more US lives — in the Middle East.

On Gaza, Trump has urged[13] Israel to wrap up its operations, saying:

Israel has to be very careful, because you’re losing a lot of the world, you’re losing a lot of support.

The Biden administration’s public and private urgings for Israeli restraint in Gaza make clear it also has little interest in being further enmeshed in the Middle East.

No matter who wins in November, both Trump and Biden would be vexed if Israel and Hamas’ war continued in January 2025. They would also be equally concerned if Hamas resumed attacks on Israel. But neither wants to expend any more than the bare minimum of political capital to resolve the situation.

In an era in which the US is producing[14] more of its own energy and US fears of terrorism[15] are decreasing, American citizens and politicians alike would much prefer its allies in the Middle East take care of their own security.

US Marines in Baghdad.
US Marines on watch at the US embassy compound in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2020. Kyle Talbot/US Marine Corps handout/EPA

The US role in the region remains integral

Despite this desire for the US to pull back from the region, the next president still has a critical role to play.

The normalisation of Saudi-Israeli relations[16], for example, is undoubtedly the most important goal of the Abraham Accords. And this will prove challenging without a binding US security guarantee for Saudi Arabia, a Saudi-US civil nuclear agreement, and increased US support for an independent Palestinian state.

The US military presence in the region will also continue to prove integral to uniting the diverse coalition of countries countering Iran’s increasing influence. After all, it was the US Central Command’s extensive co-ordination that enabled the international response to Iran’s April 13 attack on Israel.

A future US role in the region could perhaps best be described as “leading from behind[17]” – though no US president has said or likely ever will say that explicitly.

Instead, the winner of November’s election will publicly champion regional “stability”. And on this front, bolstering a regional coalition will remain the primary strategy – and could, ultimately, be the foundation for peace.

This essay is based on an excerpt from the US Studies Centre’s recent publication, Red Book | Blue Book: A guide to the next US administration[18].

References

  1. ^ posited (www.foreignaffairs.com)
  2. ^ undermine (www.theguardian.com)
  3. ^ Abraham Accords (www.state.gov)
  4. ^ appreciated (www.reuters.com)
  5. ^ debatable (edition.cnn.com)
  6. ^ stronger ties (www.timesofisrael.com)
  7. ^ more quietly (www.reuters.com)
  8. ^ benefits (foreignpolicy.com)
  9. ^ Israeli energy (www.voanews.com)
  10. ^ rolling blackouts (english.alarabiya.net)
  11. ^ new Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (www.moec.gov.ae)
  12. ^ increased (www.reuters.com)
  13. ^ urged (www.israelhayom.com)
  14. ^ producing (www.cfr.org)
  15. ^ fears of terrorism (globalaffairs.org)
  16. ^ normalisation of Saudi-Israeli relations (arabcenterdc.org)
  17. ^ leading from behind (www.hoover.org)
  18. ^ Red Book | Blue Book: A guide to the next US administration (www.ussc.edu.au)

Read more https://theconversation.com/no-matter-who-wins-both-biden-and-trump-can-likely-agree-on-one-thing-doing-less-in-the-middle-east-231604

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